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Ignoring Jesus by Making Him God

In orthodox Christianity Jesus is regarded as the Divine Son and Second Person of the Trinity; nothing less than God. Theologians – referring to those who presume to speak authoritatively about God (logos, the study of or talk about theos, god) – have ensconced him fully inside their doctrinal systems.

Over the centuries believers have witnessed to direct encounters with Jesus himself, but theologians are typically cautious when it comes to validating their authenticity. How can you recognize someone you’ve never met?

This point should not be dismissed too quickly. None of us today has a personal memory of meeting the historical Jesus, so the recognition must be based on popular depictions (like the gorgeous wavy-haired European Jesus in a Warner Sallman painting) or a conception more symptomatic of our individual and cultural biases. Maybe you saw the scars in his hands and feet. But then again, thousands in history besides Jesus have been crucified, so how can you know for sure?

The Jesus of orthodox theology is not the same Jesus who came from Nazareth, who lived and died in the first century. Archaeologists and historians are more helpful when it comes to clarifying our picture of what that Jesus may have been like.

But what about the New Testament Gospels? An internal comparison of the narratives themselves shows them to be more myth than history. I don’t mean this as an excuse to ignore what they have to say or relegate them to nothing more than Palestinian fairy tales.

These Gospel narratives were composed after the death of Jesus but before the dogma-machine of Christian orthodoxy got underway. They are not exercises in theology as much as productions in mythology, stories told as meditations on Jesus as a symbol of God. Not Jesus as God as later theologians would insist, but on Jesus as a threshold figure linking the realm of everyday life to the present mystery of reality, beyond names and forms.

Not one of the New Testament authors had known Jesus personally.

The traditional appellations of “Matthew” (a disciple of Jesus) “Mark” (an assistant of the apostle Paul) “Luke” (a disciple and biographer of Paul) and “John” (another disciple of Jesus) were added later. Their contribution was to collect and invent stories that featured Jesus as one who mediated for others an experience of spirit, but who could now only be remembered, not encountered. Even Paul, writing perhaps 15 to 20 years prior to the earliest Gospel (Mark c. 70 CE), had never met the historical Jesus.

Since they lived in closer proximity in time and place to where Jesus had been alive, the New Testament storytellers could depict him with greater realism than can a twenty-first century North American believer. Consequently those stories have seemed more like historical accounts to us than sacred fiction. Add to that our modern prejudice against fiction generally, which regards it as more fantasy than truth, and it’s no wonder that so many Christians (and others) read the Gospels as history.

This gives me an opportunity to reach back to a couple recent posts in this blog of mine, published under the general title “Idols of Orthodoxy.” There I offered a way of interpreting symbols – not mathematical or roadside symbols, but specifically symbolic objects like national flags, wedding rings, religious icons, and the human figure of Jesus.

A symbol in this sense will always have a tangible (i.e., sensory-physical) aspect – colored patterns on cloth; a band of precious metal; a portrait in stone, wood, or paint; or the body and behavior of a living person.

Who the historical Jesus was, what he said and did, and the effect he had on his contemporaries – some of whom felt arrested and transformed in his presence, others who conspired in his arrest and execution for rousing the rabble – are what the Gospel writers attempted to render in their mythological depictions of him. Again, they hadn’t actually been there, but they tried to capture his influence by placing their fictional subject within a constellation of mythological themes, heroic characters, and revealing episodes.

Thus Jesus the symbol of God became the Second Adam, a New Moses, the son of David, Suffering Servant, Lamb of God, and Word-made-flesh. By wrapping Jesus into this web of myth, they attempted to re-present him to their contemporary audiences, labeling and linking him to ideas then current in the way people characterized the transcendent mystery or Spirit of God. Under none of those titles was Jesus understood to be equal with God in any straightforward sense (which is our working definition of idolatry).

What we have in the early centuries of Christianity, then, is a progression – forward movement but not necessarily improvement – from the historical figure of Jesus, into the contemplation of Jesus as a symbol of God, and arriving finally in a theological orthodoxy that effectively ignores Jesus by making him God.

The paradoxical tension of the second phase (New Testament mythology) has snapped, leaving us with a deity out of this world – but coming soon! – and a Jesus long gone and all but forgotten.

As my diagram shows, the second-phase storytellers inserted what we might call transitional mechanisms into their narratives in order to get Jesus out of the historical past and into their contemplative present (in the episode of his resurrection), and then later (with the ascension) into his identification with God.

By rotating the diagram 90° to the left we thus have the phenomenology of symbol perfectly illustrated: the (once-) tangible Jesus of history, the symbol in whom both human and divine are paradoxically united, and the transcendent mystery beyond name and form – although theologians are famously reluctant to admit it.

As a few early Christian theologians (particularly the so-called Cappadocian Fathers: Basil the Great, his brother Gregory of Nyssa, and their close friend Gregory of Nazianzus) were bending logic in their contemplation on Jesus as a symbol of God – “fully divine, fully human, neither separate nor confused” – the emperor Constantine was urging his new kingdom of bishops to make a decision for one side or the other.

The council decided in favor of making Jesus into God. And now he is nowhere to be found.

 
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Posted by on February 20, 2019 in Post-theism/New Humanism

 

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Easter Without Miracles

Jesus of Nazareth went into the tomb, and Christ the Lord came out.

Jesus was crucified by a conspiracy of Ego, Orthodoxy, and Empire. His message was about the ‘good news’ (gospel) of human liberation and the invitation to life in community. The opposition he confronted on the political, religious, and personal levels was not interested in surrendering control to the spiritual power he both embodied and awakened in others. ‘The world’ – a term used in the New Testament as shorthand for this conspiracy of dark forces – had no choice but to put him away. For Ego, Orthodoxy, and Empire, surrendering is not an option.

A good deal of energy has been wasted on the interpretation of Easter as a physical miracle where the dead Jesus was brought back to life. The so-called resurrection might as well have been a mere resuscitation, had less time elapsed after his death. Even though the New Testament’s biggest advocate (and probable originator) of the belief in the resurrection of Jesus never mentions an empty tomb or the revival of a dead body – indeed for Paul resurrection (literally a raising up) names the process by which Jesus was liberated, exalted, and glorified to the status of Lord – an overwhelming majority of Christians today have reduced it to a mere miracle of coming back to life.

This is supposed to be significant, as it vindicated Jesus as god’s victim of child sacrifice, who saved us from our sins. It’s essential that the body which came out of the tomb is the same that went in; thus the insistence on a ‘bodily resurrection of Jesus’ – one of the Five Fundamentals of evangelical Christianity. If he wasn’t literally (actually, physically) brought back to life, then death hasn’t been vanquished and we are still in our sin, lost forever. The bodily resurrection of Jesus is the miracle upon which the entire plan of salvation turns.

After all, didn’t the apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 15) say as much?

12 Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; 14 and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. 

This sounds very much as if Paul regarded the resurrection of Jesus as a physical miracle. It is necessary, however, to hear these words in the mythological context that Paul had in mind. For him Jesus is the Second Adam (or New Man), the archetype for a new age whose saving work offers a revolutionary counterexample to the First Adam of Genesis. Whereas the First Adam had regarded equality with god as something to be grasped and exploited for his personal advantage, Jesus as the Second Adam surrendered himself totally to god’s purpose (see Philippians 2 for another Pauline meditation on this theme).

For his hubris the First Adam was evicted from the garden wherein stood the tree of life, which is another way of saying that the penalty for his overreaching pride was mortality, or death. As the archetype of humanity (according to this mythology), the First Adam set the pattern for all subsequent generations and was spiritually active (we might say) in each and every one of us – until Jesus, that is. In acknowledgment of the humble devotion and self-sacrifice of Jesus, god ‘raised him up’, metaphorically giving him access to the paradisal tree of life. Identifying with the Second Adam rather than the First makes Jesus spiritually active in the individual Christian. In his letter to the Christians in Galatia Paul says,

I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. 

All of this is to show that Paul, who is widely respected by Christians as our biblical authority on the resurrection of Jesus, did not see it as a miracle in history but as representing a seismic shift for human nature and destiny played out in the archetypal realm – that is to say, in the realm of mythology. This doesn’t mean that ‘nothing happened’, but rather that it’s always happening, that it’s poised to happen again, right now, if we’re prepared to take the myth seriously … but not literally. Taking a myth like this literally, treating it as if the figures and events it describes are in the past (or in the case of apocalyptic myths, the future) drains it of life and power, reducing it to something which must be believed or otherwise dismissed as incredible.

So let me come back to my original statement:

Jesus of Nazareth went into the tomb, and Christ the Lord came out.

Because he challenged the politico-economic system (Empire) of his day and championed the rights of the poor, Jesus was arrested and crucified by Roman authorities. His advocacy on behalf of the many who were suffering under the boot of Roman oppression, pushed ever deeper into debt just to survive, made him an enemy of those in positions of wealth and power. Empire is not simply a form of government, but a domination system that thrives on the exploitation of labor, the burden of debt and confiscation of property, along with a ruthless response to protest, disobedience, and rebellion.

At the time, religious leadership in Judaism was doing its best to regulate what ‘seemed right’ (ortho-dox) with respect to proper behavior, moral purity, observing the Sabbath, and keeping themselves separate from sinners. Jesus played loose with these rules and even deliberately transgressed on them, to the point where these leaders also wanted him gone. As Orthodoxy takes the mind captive to certain convictions, closing down on meaning and ruling out any sense or experience of the grounding mystery and greater community of life, his refusal to give up creative authority for blind obedience made him a threat here as well.

And his essential message, which had to do with an urgency upon the individual to set aside self-interest (Ego) in service of the greater good, effectively called for a reversal in values and motivation, from the centripetal preoccupations of ‘me and mine’ to a centrifugal engagement with ‘all of us, together’. The ambitions of Ego for security, superiority, significance, and worldly success had to be surrendered for the liberation and fulfillment he promised – and for many it was too much to ask. We can blame Empire and Orthodoxy for putting Jesus away, but ultimately it was (and still is) Ego that sealed his tomb.

In the days that followed, a few of his disciples came to realize that Jesus had been so much more than an individual whose way of life had gotten him in trouble with the authorities. Paul recognized in the memory of Jesus the spirit of a New Man (or Second Adam) who opens for all of us the path to life in its fullness. His spirit – not his ghost but the vital energy and continuing influence of his exemplary life – is as real now as it was then.

It was at this point, by a fresh discovery and reorientation to what Jesus had been all about, that Christ the Lord came out of the tomb.Easter

 

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